On the outside, but looking in

Drama of 'people like us' a mirror of Japanese society


The Agora Theater is tucked away near Komaba Todaimae Station, just five minutes from the hurly-burly of Shibuya. It was here that I saw “Boken Oh (Kings of the Road)” performed by Seinen Dan, a youth theater-group led by Oriza Hirata, 39, who wrote and directed the play.

The theater is the realization of a dream of Hirata’s father, Hirata Sr. A salaryman and keen amateur actor, Hirata Sr. built the Agora Theater — its name means “meeting place” or “market” in Greek — as an intimate space for performers and audiences to share their love of theater. For this purpose, the ground floor houses a theater-studies reference library and the first floor is a performance space in which there is no clear boundary between stage and auditorium.

As the audience enters and takes their seats, the actors are already “on stage,” as if this sketch-style drama has already begun. The effect is like peeping into a neighbor’s living room or, in this case, into one room of a cheap Istanbul hotel for backpackers. Bunk beds form the boundaries of the small acting space, and we watch the cast passing time by reading, packing luggage or chatting with the others sharing the room.

These roommates are a motley assortment of characters, including a young Japanese of Korean ancestry on a journey of self-discovery, a nameless, rootless long-term female traveler and a middle-aged high-school teacher who, leaving his wife behind in Japan, has set off in search of meaning in his life.

Based on Hirata’s own experience of taking a bicycle trip round the world at the age of 16, this play shows us just one day in the life of its assorted cast of characters. For some, it is the day they take to the road again; for others, just another day in Istanbul; still others doze all day in bed just as they would at home. New arrivals bring their own experiences, however mundane, into this laid-back milieu.

For all the play’s easygoing ambience, however, Hirata’s aim is an ambitious one — to explore the nature of Japanese identity and the character of a Japanese community, wherever it may happen to be. Though he never labors his point, by putting the audience in the position of voyeur, he offers — clearly, calmly and powerfully — a mirror of how we really are. Rejecting theatricality, refusing to offer a cathartic experience for the audience, this quiet, observational approach achieves, paradoxically, an involving objectivity.

And what we see is how even these Japanese “outsiders,” wandering the world with a spirited independence, immediately revert to conformity when returning to a Japanese community, however transient. People interact with their roommates in characteristically Japanese ways, cooperating in all their activities while at the same time avoiding direct and serious conversation. Here, in a room in the city that bridges Europe and Asia, they chat about Japanese domestic news or gossip. Hirata has, in this small “sample,” perfectly captured contemporary Japanese society.

But as society changes, so does its mirror — the theater. Before the collapse of Japan’s bubble economy in 1991, theater here was extroverted and entertaining, echoing the hubris of the times. In keeping with society’s more reflective mood since then, Hirata’s quiet dramas have found favor with theatergoers. His plays effectively connect the world on stage to the lives of its audience members in the seats.

To be sure, dramas that exploit powerful emotions to create an effect are also popular; but it is Hirata’s detached mood that corresponds best to our contemporary, impersonal interaction with others. This is modern Japanese society on stage, like it or not.

In recognizing ourselves in the characters on stage, Hirata intends to make us aware of how isolated we have become. And perhaps, he hopes to send us away resolved to break through our barriers and conect with those around us.